The air inside the small Temple chamber was cool despite the heat of summer, and the thin turquoise curtains kept out errant flies. Even the sacred symbols painted on the walls with bold blue and red strokes radiated tranquility.
“Sixscore eight sheaves to the house of Matlan Udruf,
three brand-new plowshares to the house of Matlan Udruf,
apologies to the house of Matlan Udruf for the damage caused.”
The archivist chanted, the melody rising, lowering, rising, then descending again for the final tone signaling the end of the section. Her eyes were closed and her body relaxed as she lay on the comfortable recliner.
The judge leaned forward and licked her lips. “Great, now we only need to look at the Doron case. What was the decision in that one?”
“Threescore five sheaves to the house of Edhlan Doron,
one wholesome ox to the house of Edhlan Doron,”
The archivist stopped without lowering the tone. The judge frowned. “Yes, and?”
“one wholesome ox to the house of Edhlan Doron,”
“Yes, I’ve heard that. Next item?”
“one wholesome ox to the house of Edhlan Doron,
The archivist opened her eyes, still deep in trance. She stared straight ahead, unseeing. Then she sat bolt upright.
The judge froze in her seat. What was going on? “Is there something wrong?” she asked, her stomach sinking.
“I — I can’t, esteemed judge, I can’t —” The archivist made a brief, fluttering gesture with her hands, an aborted attempt at reaching for something. “I —” Her face was suddenly flushed. “I can’t —”
The judge looked around frantically. Where were the Temple maidens at a time like this? The door-curtains were still; no sandal-steps sounded outside. “Do you want me to stop the session?”
“I can’t reach the Archive! I —” She jumped up, her feet tangling in her robe. She slipped on the polished stone floor and fell into the arms of the judge. Her chest labored hard and her muscles were clenching and unclenching.
The judge clutched the archivist’s body to her as she shouted for help at the top of her lungs.
“Idriwu, I am Athlaniyo, heed my call,” the maiden said, leaning close to the archivist and touching her temples.
Idriwu grunted something, barely conscious.
“Return, return, servants of light, return, solemn pathfinders,” Athlaniyo recited.
The archivist shuddered, then opened her eyes to this world. She looked weary beyond age, her smooth young face shackled with the weight of exhaustion.
“Athlaniyo, I… I lost my bond to the Archive, it’s like… it’s like it’s not there any longer.” She shook her head. “What happened? I… I still cannot… I need to recreate the bond. I can’t even hear the forerunners…”
Athlaniyo bit her lower lip. Then she shook her head, the metallic bits in her braids clinking together. “No, you need to rest. You can try again later.”
“But I —” She made an attempt to sit up, but Athlaniyo pushed her back on the recliner with one hand to her sternum.
The judge stepped forward. “None of my queries are urgent. Feel free to rest.”
Idriwu looked from the judge to Athlaniyo and back. “But —”
“You need to sleep,” Athlaniyo said. “I’m going to make you sleep if that’s all right.”
Idriwu nodded weakly.
Athlaniyo put a hand on her forehead and recited again. “Descend, descend, in time ready for ascent, children of yore.”
Idriwu closed her eyes and slept.
The maiden looked up at the judge, her face stern: “You’re not supposed to know the Temple phrases.”
The judge, easily twice her age, nodded. “I can make an oath…”
“I will have to make you forget.”
The judge opened her mouth, then closed it, realizing the Temple servants’ word overruled everything in matters of the Archive. She lowered her head.
The high priests sat in council in the largest of the Temple chambers, a rectangular hall lit by ceiling braziers even during the day. Firelight glinted on the embossed metallic plates decorating the walls and on the geometric mosaics of the floor.
“Too much for too little gain,” one of the elderly sages lamented, running a hand over the curls of his beard. “We need to increase the amount and it is a strain on archivists’ bodies.”
“Not to mention their minds.” Qisin Aday, the elected head of the council, was younger than most and barely middle-aged, but still she spoke with the sonorous voice of the wise.
“Not to mention their minds,” the sage concurred.
An uncomfortable silence descended on the assembly. The young apprentices standing in the back exchanged nervous glances with each other. The question remained unspoken.
Finally, Dathrun spoke — Dathrun, always forceful, seldom considerate. He was not a popular sage and commoners seldom turned to him for advice, but his opinion carried weight with his fellows. “Learned ones — we need to consider that present trends might continue.”
Young Asawirh drew in a sharp, hissing breath. Yet heads across the crowded assembly hall nodded in quiet agreement with Dathrun.
“We should ask the archivists to testify,” Dathrun said. “They can share their assessment of the situation with us. They see the most; they understand the best.”
“I agree,” Qisin Aday said. She herself had served as an archivist at a younger age. “If we can get them into a state where they can testify,” she added on a low tone.
“Is the situation that bad?” Asawirh grimaced.
“That, and worse. Interruptions and fade-outs are more and more common. The voice of the forerunners is less and less audible, the landscapes and cities are vanishing in a steam-bath haze.” Qisin Aday swallowed. “You will see.”
Idriwu stood, lost her balance for an instant, then regained it. She made a vague gesture with her right hand.
“Yes?” Athlaniyo, her regular assistant, tried to make sense of her erratic behavior.
“I — I —” Idriwu was struggling to speak. “The Archive — I —” She took a step forward, then another and another, her gaze fixed on the unpainted adobe wall of her sparse room. “I need more of the herbs —”
Athlaniyo tried to guide her back to her cot. “You know I can’t give you more. The council ruled so.”
“Athlaniyo, I — I can’t reach it any more, I — My memories, they are in there — I need the herbs!” She trembled violently.
“If I give you any more, I might kill you! You can’t take it, you never used the herbs before!” Athlaniyo had to calm herself, not to allow the situation to escalate to a screaming match.
The archivist’s legs gave way. She slumped to the ground and started to sob.
Qisin Aday crossed her arms in front of her chest as she listened to Athlaniyo’s report. The giant hall was mostly empty — only the councilmembers themselves were present.
“It is getting worse, esteemed councilor-priests,” Athlaniyo said, on the verge of tears. “She’s one of the young ones who were raised to be archivists from birth, and a great part of her is in the Archive. Her memories are in there. Her dreams. Her self. And now she’s losing all of that.”
“How is that even possible?” Dathrun asked. “The archivists see the world of memories and hear the voice of the ancients. How can there be room for a self in the world beyond?”
“With the young ones the bond becomes instinctive over time. They no longer need to stroll through the lands and hear the chant of the forerunners,” Athlaniyo said. “They simply know, like they know their own thoughts. Possibly with even more clarity. We’ve been planning on eventually doing away with the work-trance altogether, but for the moment it’s still helpful when accessing complicated legal recordings.”
Dathrun frowned, his golden headdress almost slipping aside. He reached up to steady it. “I wasn’t aware of that. Is this a new development?”
“With all due respect…” Athlaniyo paused. “We’ve made great strides in technique in the past few years. It’s not only the stonemasons and shipbuilders who constantly improve their craft.”
Qisin Aday nodded, speaking up before Dathrun could answer with a retort. “I see your point. We’re all too often distracted by the politicking expected of our office.” She glanced sternly at Dathrun. “But if we lose our bond to the Archive, we will lose everything — all of our history and our knowledge. This isn’t just about her fate, and that of the other young archivists, it’s about our entire way of life,” she said firmly but calmly.
Athlaniyo lowered her head. “I know, esteemed one. I’m sorry for being so selfish.”
“You are concerned for your charge, I understand that.” The high priest’s voice was tinged with warmth. Athlaniyo looked up in surprise. “Did you grow up together?”
“Yes, esteemed one.” She looked away again. “I was guiding her from a small age, just as I myself was guided to do.”
“And no doubt you did well.”
“If I hadn’t, none of this would’ve happened,” she said bleakly. “It’s because she was trained too well.”
“Don’t blame yourself.” Qisin Aday took a step closer. “We couldn’t have known. The Archive was supposed to endure eternally. It had stood since the beginning of time. No one expected it to fall.”
Athlaniyo shook her head. “It’s still there, it’s only getting harder and harder to access. We tried incense-smoke at first, but the herbs work better. They seem to increase the facility for reaching the Archive, even in more peaceful times, though we usually try to train those as archivists who don’t need them.” She hesitated. “If you could allow us to give a larger amount —”
“No.” The head of the council sighed. “That would only delay the inevitable. There’s no need to risk the health of archivists.”
“Idriwu is begging for it! I don’t know what to tell her! She’s begging for it!” Athlaniyo trembled with suppressed tears and anger. “I’m afraid she will —”
She could not bring herself to say it.
For an instant she thought her worst fears had come true.
Idriwu was sitting on her cot with a large ritual dagger in hand. Her left arm was bleeding from multiple cuts, the blood dripping on the earthen floor.
Athlaniyo dashed to her across the room. “What are you doing?!”
Idriwu looked at her, her eyes bloodshot. “The pain drives away the wall of fog and noise. It helps me think clearly. It calms down the fear —”
“But the — Ah!” She yanked out her belt, tried to use it to stop the bleeding.
“The cuts are shallow,” Idriwu said dreamily.
“What are you doing?! For the Temple’s sake!” Athlaniyo swore. “I have to clean this!” She yanked Idriwu up, a muscle painfully spasming in her shoulder — the archivist was about her height, but with a sturdier build — and dragged her outside. She swore all the while.
“For all the land below and the sky above! Why would you do that? If you want pain, there are ways to cause pain without injury! I can ask the Palace torturers if you want me to, they surely know! I can do anything, just don’t hurt yourself!”
They eyed the heap of rods, straps and other parts with skepticism. With some difficulty they’d stacked Idriwu’s storage-chests on top of each other in a corner, but they still weren’t sure the resulting setup would fit inside the small personal chamber.
“Are you sure you know how to put it together?” Idriwu asked. Athlaniyo was glad she was more lucid for once.
“The torturers explained. Look, there are signs at each end — the rod marked with a cross goes to the hole marked with a cross, the rod with a circle goes to the hole marked with a circle…”
Idriwu lifted a rod, weighed it experimentally. “It’s so strange,” she said, on an eerily level voice. “So much of me is gone. But the me that lives in the present is still there. It’s only when I try to reminisce… It’s like putting a foot forward and touching down on thin air. The path of memories is gone.”
“You will be all right,” Athlaniyo said. “Even if we lose the Archive for good.”
“Why do you think it’s going away?”
“The elders say it’s because of the stars.” Athlaniyo was concerned about Idriwu’s lack of emotion. “You know, I was thinking. We only need to use this contraption once or twice. With the Temple phrases I can make you relive the feeling from then on.”
Idriwu started putting the machine together. “Mhm. That makes sense. The torturers will be angry though, they had to drag all of this heavy equipment here, and then they’ll have to drag it back…”
As if they were discussing the weather. Inside, Athlaniyo wanted to scream.
“This gets complicated,” Idriwu said. “Now there is a cross, a triangle, a square and a little squiggly thing.” She held out a rod to Athlaniyo.
“The squiggly thing just means you have to affix the strap first, and then put together the rods. They told me about that.”
“They are like potter’s marks,” Idriwu said. “Or those small tablets the landowners use. A circle means a sheep, a circle with two lines on top means an ox…”
“Let’s just put this together first.”
“All right, all right…”
Idriwu looked displeased as her line of thought was interrupted, and a pang of sadness ran through Athlaniyo — why couldn’t she allow her friend this one moment of clarity?
Idriwu was tightening a strap when Athlaniyo finally spoke up again. “Look, what was it you were saying about tablets? I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
Idriwu looked glad, but she did not look away from her task. She grunted as she pulled on the strap with all her force. It held. “I thought I could use that to… make recordings. For myself, at least. So that they won’t get lost again.”
Athlaniyo sat down on the ground next to her. “But there are markings only for the common animals and the harvest.”
“I can make up marks, like the torturers made up this little squiggly here.” She pointed with her shoulder while her hands were busy.
“You’d need a thousandscore marks if you wanted to list every single thing. Thousandscores of thousandscores. How would you remember them without the Archive?”< “I could use a system, so that they would be easier to remember. Maybe based on how the names sound… I could have a simple drawing, and then something to remind me of the sound. That way I could remember lots of marks. …There.” She grabbed the contraption’s top and pulled it down with all her weight. “That should do.” Athlaniyo stood, dusting off her clothing. “I think you’d better remove your robes. You can keep your underclothes on.” Idriwu swallowed hard, showing anxiety for the first time they’d started building the instrument of torture. “All right. Are you sure this won’t cause any lasting damage?” “They said if some body part was turning purple, it was time to take the restraints down a notch. But if I did that, everything would be fine. They use these to interrogate spies from enemy Palaces, and it would hardly be courteous to damage them permanently.” “Oh.” Idriwu did not look reassured, but Athlaniyo was happy even for that. Anything was better than that numb lack of emotion.
Idriwu collapsed on the cot after coming out of the trance, her limbs shaking. Tears were streaming down her face, but she was not making a sound. Then she coughed and said, “Thank you.” Her voice was hoarse. She ran her hands along her body — Athlaniyo wondered if she was checking to see if everything was still in its proper place. She smoothed down the wrinkled bedding by her side, her trembling fingers running over the rough-woven square patterns.
It took her a long while to say anything further. “I could reach it. Not all that well, but I could.” She herself seemed surprised over that. “If we combine this with the herbs and the Temple phrases, we could… we could recall a lot of the recordings. The Temple and Palace histories, the business transactions… we could put down a lot on those tablets. Life could go on.”
“Your memories come first,” Athlaniyo said firmly. “And I’m still not sure your method is going to work.”
The council was in disarray. Venerated sages were shouting at each other, men and women alike. The apprentices mostly huddled together in clumps, but a handful of them had joined in the fray, supporting their teachers with their voice.
Dathrun finally swung his priest’s staff and slammed its head into one of the metallic plates decorating the wall. The loud clanging noise created a moment of silence, and he used it to survey the assembly, staring everyone in the eye one by one, his face grim and determined.
“Will the high council show some restraint?” he asked, his eyes glinting with barely disguised disgust.
Qisin Aday pulled her robe closer. “Would you summarize the debate? Esteemed one,” she added hastily.
Dathrun bowed his head, then started to speak. “I think by now everyone has agreed that the new plan is worth attempting. We should send apprentices to the esteemed archivist Idriwu to learn as many marks as possible, and the rules for creating and combining them.”
“Esteemed Idriwu herself is usually not in a condition to teach,” Qisin Aday interrupted.
“Then to her assistant, the esteemed maiden Athlaniyo of the Temple.” Dathrun glanced at Athlaniyo, sitting on a chair in the first row. She had not participated in the commotion.
Dathrun cleared his throat. “The debate was over our priorities. The Temple and Palace recordings could be committed to tablets relatively easily. There is a lot of repetition and the number of different marks required will probably remain low. We can also reuse some of the marks that already exist, about animals and suchlike. The issue is about recordings of a… more personal nature.”
The shouts erupted again.
Qisin Aday swung her own staff. The loud crackle was again effective at quieting down the unruly mob. “We should put this into the council regulations,” she said and grinned at Dathrun. He smiled back darkly.
Then she pulled herself out to her full height and addressed the assembly. “These archivists, they already work night and day to salvage as much of our shared knowledge as possible. Is there anyone here who will look them in the face and say they cannot salvage anything of themselves?”
The crowd was silent.
“You are getting better at this,” Athlaniyo said.
“That still won’t stop the trend,” Idriwu grumbled. “A few months and we won’t be able to reach the Archive at all. At least you can also transcribe faster now. …Let’s do it.” She took off her robes. Her white undergarments contrasted with her skin. She sat down on the recliner, glancing up at the contraption standing next to it.
Athlaniyo handed her the bowl and she drank the herbal infusion, keeping it in her mouth before each swallow so that it would start acting faster. When she finished, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
“The brews are getting stronger,” she said, her voice wavering. “They make my soul want to take flight. I feel… mighty? As if I could overcome…”
“The herbalists have been hard at work too,” Athlaniyo responded.
“Sure. Say the words.”
Athlaniyo began intoning the secret words of the Temple trance. Idriwu’s head dropped. Athlaniyo went on and on, and when she had judged the trance was deep enough, she told Idriwu to stand while she strapped her into the contraption. They had opted to go on using it — there was no time to work on refining the Temple phrases.
Idriwu trembled as the herbs began to take effect. Athlaniyo tightened a few straps — Idriwu gasped, then her breath evened out again.
She began to recite, slowly, methodically, and Athlaniyo was there to take notes.
I was by the riverside with my brother Fadha and my sister Isinahu,
when my friend Athlaniyo came down to play with us,
she said it had been a long day for her at the Temple,
I said I knew that just as well myself and she smiled,
Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish author, a psycholinguist and a popular-science journalist. E writes both speculative fiction and poetry, and eir works have been published or are forthcoming in a variety of venues like STRANGE HORIZONS, STONE TELLING, GIGANOTOSAURUS and JABBERWOCKY, among others.
“Recordings of a More Personal Nature” first appeared in the November 2013 issue of APEX MAGAZINE.